Tony Visconti is the producers’ producer. If you have heard any popular music at all, in the last four or five decades, then the chances are high that you’ve heard his work. It was fascinating, then, to see him post this on his facebook page recently:
“Producers and Engineers: Rather than actively buying up new and vintage equipment, more plug-ins, thinking those inanimate things will make better records, you should be asking the artists you record to submit better music, better lyrics and better performances. Don’t degrade your skill and talent by resigning yourself to polishing turds. Chasing the Top 10 is a fool’s game. Give feedback, give direction. This is your responsibility to music, to our culture, to the public whom you do not want to let down.”
I think this encapsulates how to produce music very succinctly and the sentiments really resonate with me. It is your duty, as a producer, to contribute positively to our musical culture and to give the public something good. Doing this via the animate elements in the process might be the harder path (giving feedback and direction can be seen as confrontational and you need a great deal of tact and diplomacy to deliver it effectively), but it’s the only one that works. Reliance on buying in the latest and greatest inanimate object won’t help you make better records, because it’s ultimately an avoidance tactic. The real work of a music producer is to demand better music, lyrics and performances from those musicians whose records you are producing.
Tangentially, it also explains why it is so supremely difficult to produce your own music, without anybody else. How do you demand better music of yourself? How do you require that you write better lyrics? Can you even tell when you aren’t writing great music and lyrics? While trying to grapple with the technicalities of making a recording, how do you focus your mind on the performance you give?
It can be done, of course and there are artists that have. It’s difficult, though. Somehow, you have to hold yourself up to high standards of musicianship, while taking care of the technical aspects of capturing that lightning in a bottle. I can’t help but think that when you have a master music producer on your side, coaching and coaxing you, mentoring you to present the best music and musical performance, it’s a lot easier to deliver.
So that’s the secret right there and you heard it from one of the undeniable greats. Don’t waste your life trying to polish sub-standard songs and performances. Instead, focus on helping those elements of the record be great in the first place (and then make sure you faithfully capture it all to some technical recording medium). There is no plug-in that turns a bad piece of music into a good one. There is no lyric-fix-o-matic programme that can take a sad song and make it better. If your musicians, singers and players just aren’t that into delivering a vibrant, soulful, emotive, affective, exciting performance, there isn’t a post processing box available to take a dull, sloppy, sluggish take and turn it into a magical one. The technology does not exist and even if it did, it’s the wrong approach.
Demand better music and so produce better records. It’s that simple, really.